25 Investigates: Parents kept in the dark after teacher cited for abusing two boys

FITCHBURG, Mass. — Child welfare investigators cited a Fitchburg special education teacher this year for abusing two boys in her class.

The parents of those boys told 25 Investigates they each thought their sons were part of an isolated incident because the school and state kept it all a secret.

Investigative reporter Eric Rasmussen previously reported that the State Department of Children and Families has cited 24 public school staffers for abusing and neglecting students since the beginning of 2017 alone. But parents aren’t allowed to know the names of those teachers - or even where they work – a system victims’ advocates say fails to protect children.

Stacy, a Fitchburg mother, said 25 Investigates’ recent report on school abuse led her to come forward with her son’s story.

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Stacy, who 25 Investigates is only identifying by her first name to protect her son’s identity, said Lori Nogueira, a special education teacher at Reingold Elementary School left marks around her son’s neck last June.

About a month later, DCF sent her a letter finding that its own investigation had “supported” – or confirmed – those physical abuse allegations against Nogueira.

“It made me feel like, alright, I wasn't just making a fuss over nothing,” said Stacy.

But Stacy said she thought the abuse of her son was an isolated incident – until she saw a 25 Investigates report on Monday citing the same teacher for physically abusing another student.

Not an isolated incident

25 Investigates previously reported that DCF also cited Nogueira for physical abuse of Jayda Wright’s 7-year-old son.

DCF announced its abuse findings to both mothers with letters dated the same day – July 7.

Fitchburg Superintendent of Schools André Ravenelle has said he immediately placed the teacher on paid administrative leave, but he never told parents at the school.

Nogueira still has her teacher licenses to work with preschoolers with special needs and students with and without disabilities from kindergarten to third grade - and 25 Investigates discovered the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has made no move to take her teaching licenses away.

“I’m glad that she’s not in the classroom, but if there was more than one incident…Why wasn’t she already out?,” Stacy asked.

State doesn’t always pull teacher licenses for abuse

Reporter Eric Rasmussen revealed even when DCF finds that an educator has abused a child, it’s often not enough to pull a teacher’s license.

The state education department can take years to decide whether to revoke a license and ban a teacher from the classroom.

The agency currently has dozens of open investigations into teachers cited by DCF for abuse and neglect going back as far as 2012.

Since 2012, state education investigators have only closed 13 cases where DCF confirmed a teacher or school staffer abused a student.

But DESE said it has no idea what happens to those teachers reported by DCF or whether they returned to the classroom. The agency said only one employee has access to that information and the agency has yet to provide 25 Investigates details about those cases.

DESE has said the majority of its license investigations are resolved through settlements – another secret process that can put teachers back in the classroom if they agree to attend training or treatment.

Those investigations and settlements are also kept secret from any potential employers at new school districts.

Commissioner defends school abuse secrecy

Acting Education Commissioner Jeff Wulfson has defended the secretive process that determines whether teachers cited for abuse belong in the classroom.

“Teachers who have educator licenses have constitutional due process rights, so we want to do a thorough investigation. We want to respect those rights,” said Wulfson.

When asked if teachers’ rights come at the expense of students, Wulfson said, “We don't believe that any student is in danger.”

A number of Nogueira’s supporters have posted comments on social media, saying she is a great teacher who works with the most challenging students.

Her lawyer has declined interview offers, telling 25 Investigates he does not comment on “pending litigation.”

Officials for the Fitchburg school district said it never told parents because all that information is confidential, but insists it has “taken the proper measures related to student safety.”